Sunday, October 17, 2010

Choose compassion

"Young Americans today live in a world of endless connections and up-to-the-minute information on one another, constantly updating friends, loved ones, and total strangers about the minutiae of their young, wired lives. But new research suggests that behind all this communication and connectedness, something is missing. The study found that college students today are 4o percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years."--from "Empathy is so Yesterday" in the Boston Sunday Globe (October 17, 2010)

"What difference would it make in your life if you engaged the world with a conscious commitment to end sorrow or pain wherever you meet it? What difference would it make to wake in the morning and greet your family, the stranger beside you on the bus, the troublesome colleague, with the intention to listen to them wholeheartedly and be present for them? Compassion doesn't always call for grand or heroic gestures. It asks you to find in your heart the simple but profound willingness to be present, with a commitment to end sorrow and contribute to the well-being and ease of all beings."--Christina Feldman, from Compassion: Listening to the Cries of the World, excerpted in The Buddha is Still Teaching: Contemporary Buddhist Wisdom

My Alma Mater Rutgers College was in the news recently, but not for producing a Noble Prize winner or hosting president Obama in anticipation of the midterm elections. Freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the heavily-trafficked George Washington Bridge in New Jersey. The suicide was the result of a cruel prank committed by Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Ravi's friend and accomplice, Molly Wei. They thought it would be hilarious to use a webcam to broadcast Clementi having a private, sexual encounter with another man.

Were Ravi and Wei cruelly demonstrating their personal homophobia? Probably. But it seems to me that--if you listen to the media--Clementi's tragic story is one of many that we've heard in the past few years involving young people and the Internet. From Megan Meier, the 13 year-old girl who killed herself after being duped by a neighbor into thinking she was developing a relationship with a "cute boy" on MySpace, to Phoebe Prince, who was not just "bullied" but downright harassed by classmates whose constant taunts on and offline led Prince to commit suicide. Reports have said that the teenagers continued to mock Prince on Facebook even after learning of her death.

When I read these stories I can't help but feel that "Generation Wi-Fi" lacks compassion for others, and, even keeping in mind the extreme nature of these stories, I wonder if there aren't more cases of shaming and cruelty happening in this country as a result of the digital boom of the last ten years. I think it has been amply demonstrated that sites like MySpace and Facebook have distanced kids from each other, making it easier for them to lash out online without the consequences, of say, being punched in the face or cursed out live and in person. Worse, the incriminating videos or vicious rumors are not like a nasty note passed between a few girls that ends up crumbled in the trash. They can easily be passed on to anyone in the world and tend to stay online indefinitely. That's a far cry from when I was a teenager, and my worst fear was a stray insult lobbed at me from across the hall. No, this meanness sticks.

But is it entirely Facebook's fault for the increasing number of cyberbullies, or is it the culture at large--with unreal "reality" shows making women, minorities, gays--basically anyone who strays from the mainstream--into the butt of viewers' laughter and scorn and where the modern cult of celebrity has made us as narcissistic as a 16-year-old pop star? It's true that we are living in an age when Google enables us to peek into the lives of others without the slightest effort to really get to know them. Worse, real people's lives can be toyed with as if they're just another source of entertainment on a dull Tuesday night in the dorms. But is that the fault of an efficient search engine or is it more like road rage, when the irrational desire to cut off the car that cut us off is easily played out without either driver even seeing the other, much less communicating with him.

In the Globe, reporter Keith O' Brien does acknowledge that "empathy is such a basic ingredient of the human experience that even babies exhibit it, crying when other children cry or reacting to the facial expressions of adults and parents." But while few young people would openly mock their college roommate about his sexual preferences, there are many like Ravi and Wei who have no problem exhibiting the same mockery online for a few laughs.

Technology and social media are only as good or as evil as its human users. "We are tempted to think that social-media technology drove the behavior, but as a truly ethical matter, the behavior has to be and should be considered human-driven, not technology-driven,” says Scott Foulkrod, a philosophy professor at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, talking to the Christian Science Monitor ("Rutgers Student Death: Has Digital Age made students callous?" October 1, 2010) A person's capacity for both compassionate acts and acts of cruelty have always been present. But the means by which we can act upon our cruelest thoughts have changed, and as a result, young people growing up with the Internet may be tempted to act out some of their darker impulses online, where restraint in the presence of the other person is essentially eliminated.

I'm fascinated by what drives people to do cruel things to each other. I'm also struggling with the concept of human beings being multi-dimensional. Reading Buddhist teachings has taught me that even those who commit evil acts aren't inherently evil. Reading stories like Clementi's makes my guts clench with anger. Someone should shame those two co-conspirators with a webcam trained on THEIR most private lives, I think. But that is not showing compassion, that is making the world into "Us" and "Them," where anyone under 20 is regarded as a narcissistic jerk or worse. I've met many young adults who have shown kindness and compassion, even online. Kids are still reaching out and supporting each other, like in the story of 16 year-old Esther Earl of Boston, who had an online following of admirers who helped her battle thyroid cancer and who, even after her death, spoke of her as if she had been a favored schoolmate and not a girl they met over the Internet. I think that Earl's short life was definitely enriched by her online supporters, and that their good wishes for her show that not every young person uses social media for ill.

I do hope that there are more stories like that of Esther Earl. Our compassion for one another is what makes our common suffering easier to bear. I'd hate to think of a future where we're so distant from each other that feeling empathy for someone is considered a weakness or a waste of time.


Unknown said...

First off, thank you for the Feldman quote, I believe it's my new favorite.

Second, I think Foulkrod's position is a wise one to take in this instance. It's easy to blame cruelty on new technology, and it always has been, because admitting that the problem is human means that, in some way, the problem is us. And that's scary. And it's true.

Imagine the first society with bows and arrows. Imagine how one pissed off coward, who'd never dare to start a fist/knife/spearfight on his own, might be emboldened by the power to harm from a distance. Until this society had evolved to a point where it was universally recognized that such weapons had to be wielded responsibly, I imagine that the bows themselves might have been demonized as "evil and cowardly technology", overshadowing their usefulness as tools.

We are really only at the start of the second generation of internet children. As a society, we still haven't evolved the morality or self-control to wield the internet responsibly. But we will, and until then it's important not to demonize the technology. Instead, it's our responsibility to be examples and teacher to others, especially our children, until society can stand on its own legs.

...holy damn that was a long comment. I think I'll turn this subject into a blog post soon, it's really a terribly interesting subject.

Jennifer Campaniolo said...

Thanks for the long comment. I second the idea of you writing a blog post about this. I think there's a lot that can be said on the topic that I don't even touch on!